Does anyone really believe we are going to avert a climate catastrophe?

An energy transition is underway but it is too slow to avert a climate catastrophe and it ignores many other environmental and social challenges that need tackling now. Capitalism has got us into this mess but doesn’t have the tools to get us out of it. Perhaps ecosocialism and Extinction Rebellion provide some answers.

It might be easy, even for someone who follows the scientific evidence about climate change, to think that we are on track to avert a climate disaster. The world’s nations agreed in 2015 to limit global warming to well under 2oC, didn’t they!?? Sources of renewable energy (wind, solar and batteries) are getting more efficient, are now cheaper than fossil fuels and are being rolled out across the world. Coal is dying. Electric vehicles are getting cheaper and more popular. The fossil fuel divestment movement is growing daily. The public, businesses and investors increasingly want climate action. There can be no denying that an energy transition from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewable energy is underway.

But is the transition occurring quickly enough? Is there a danger that people will infer from all this ‘good’ news that we are on track to avert an environmental disaster? Will it generate false expectations and hope? And is focussing on the energy transition diverting attention away from other environmental and social problems that are just as serious and need simultaneous urgent attention? Let’s do a reality check.

Despite the tripling of wind and solar capacity over the previous decade, in 2018 they still contributed only 2% of the world’s total energy supply; coal, oil and gas contributed 82%. Looking only at the world’s electricity generation in 2018,  wind and solar contributed about 10%, and coal and gas about 60%. Between 2013 and 2018, ‘wind-and-solar’ and ‘coal-and-gas’ increased their electricity generation by the same amount, about 2,000 terawatt hours. Over the next decade, eight major oil and gas companies are planning production increases that will lift the CO2 emissions of the fuels they produce by 13%. There is no wonder that global CO2 emissions and levels in the atmosphere are still rising, as is global warming. To have just a two in three chance of keeping global warming under 1.5oC (2oC is far from safe) the world needs to reduce its emissions at over 7% per year if we start today. If we don’t peak emissions until 2025, the required reduction jumps to 15% per year. If we haven’t halved emissions by 2030, it will be impossible to keep warming to anything like a safe level for the environment or humans. The next ten years will be critical.

And all that ignores positive feedbacks and tipping points in Earth Systems that are likely to lead to runaway global warming and an uninhabitable ‘Hothouse Earth’. Nor does it consider other very serious environmental challenges, particularly loss of biodiversity, captured in the nine Planetary Boundaries; or the need to tackle simultaneously the many social inequalities and social injustices that abound intra- and inter-nationally, particularly the North-South divide. And don’t get me started on the incompetents, crooks, cronies and lickspittles who run the governments and companies we hope will plan and navigate a way through this mess.

In a nutshell, I don’t think that the world will make the environmental, social and democratic changes necessary in the next ten years to head off an environmental catastrophe later in the century. A catastrophe that will lead to societal collapse, and a dramatic fall in the world population to perhaps one billion people. I don’t think that the governments of the world have the will to make the necessary changes and even if they had I don’t think that they know how to make and enforce the decisions needed to make it happen quickly, equitably and peacefully across the globe.

How did we get to this parlous condition? Capitalism. The essential feature of capitalism is the investment of personal wealth (capital) in the expectation that the company you invest in will make a profit and that you will get more back than you invested – your capital will grow. Some businesses fail and some investments are lost of course (that’s innovation and competition … and also sometimes monopoly control and corruption) but across the whole economy capital grows. Profits are made by the exploitation of workers and the environment, with the result that wealth and power accumulate in a few hands and social inequalities increase. Simultaneously, the environment becomes depleted (in the case of natural resources such as fresh water, fertile soil, fish stocks, forests, minerals) and polluted (with, for example, greenhouse gases, toxic chemicals and plastics).

If capitalism got us into this mess, does it have the economic tools to get us out of it? Can a free market economy, unlimited economic growth, exploitation of workers and treating the environment as both our pantry and our toilet deliver environmental sustainability, social justice, a redistribution of power and wealth, life with dignity for all, democracy, and demilitarised peace?

Economists such as Ross Gittins, Nicholas Stern, Ross Garnaut and Joseph Stiglitz, and organisations like the World Bank and the governments of the G20 think that ‘progressive capitalism’, ‘capitalism with a human face’ and ‘green capitalism’ can do the job. They think that continuous economic growth (perhaps driven by the provision of services rather than the production and consumption of things) is not just possible but also absolutely necessary for us to achieve such goals. They think it can be achieved with a carbon price, 100% renewable energy, a circular economy, stopping deforestation, sustainable agriculture, eating less meat, etc.

Some people look at the fact that humans are already consuming the resources of 1.5 ‘sustainable’ Earths and the need and right for people in the global South to enjoy the same living standards as those in the affluent North and say ‘degrowth’ is essential. Maybe going back to the sorts of consumption patterns people in the West had in the 1960s and 70s.

Others are agnostic about growth, believing that if we make human wellbeing and environmental sustainability our principal goals maybe economic growth will occur, maybe it won’t. Kate Raworth is in this camp with her idea of Doughnut Economics.

And then there are the ecosocialists, people who consider that the only way that the goals I outlined above can be achieved is if environmental sustainability is combined with socialism. Not the socialism of twentieth century USSR and its satellites but a truly democratic socialism with social justice, a life of dignity for all, collective ownership of the means of production, full employment, and an end to the exploitation of workers and to profit and wealth accumulation.

I’m in the ecosocialist camp but I don’t know if or how we can make the transition, certainly not in the very short time we have left to avert the climate catastrophe. I’m not ready to give up yet though. If nothing else, we can try to limit the impacts of the catastrophe by tackling the causes with no-regret actions (e.g. many of the policies that the progressive capitalism promoters advocate for); we can start preparing individuals and societies for the inevitable impacts of the catastrophe; we can focus on the most disadvantaged and oppressed people; and we can start building democracy and social justice. Crucially, our attention must be on what we, individually and collectively, must do over the next ten years. Put the focus on 2030, not 2050 or 2100.

So, I’m not sure about the destination and I certainly don’t have a road map. But I do know that we have to do a lot more than is currently being done by governments, international agencies and businesses.  The system needs a severe shake up. The most promising development in recent years is Extinction Rebellion: mass, peaceful disruption of the normal functioning of society and government but on a far grander, more widespread scale than has been seen so far. Capitalism has dangerously disrupted the Earth’s environment and systems. Environmental activists must disrupt capitalism.

This article was originally published on the website of the Public Health Association of Australia and is based on a talk given at the Australian Public Health Conference 2020 in October.

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Peter Sainsbury is a retired public health worker with a long interest in social policy, particularly social justice, and now focusing on climate change and environmental sustainability. He is extremely pessimistic about the world avoiding catastrophic global warming.

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